How To Cope When Expat Friends Leave

There is a lot written about how to say goodbye when you first set out on an expat adventure. Articles and advice column packed with tips and techniques meant to lessen the pain of separation as you bid farewell to family and friends.

It’s an inevitable part of living overseas that you’ll miss loved ones back home and spend more than a few painful moments missing those left behind.But there are other times when you have to say goodbye as an expat, some of them even more wrenching than your initial departure.

One of the most distressing can be when it comes time for the friends you made overseas to return to their home countries. You may have made friends with the locals, you may be thoroughly settled into the culture and be holding down a steady job. But there’s a special friendship that develops between fellow expats.

Being able to sit down for a coffee and discuss your confusion over local habits, talk about your frustrations at certain customs or commiserate about homesickness is a powerful bonding tool. Expats will often be drawn to other expats, even if they don’t share the same nationality, precisely because they share common experiences by being guests in a strange land.

Expat friends are the ones most likely to help you sort out confusing paperwork, show you around town and lend you hard-to-get items. They are also the ones who will rush to your aid when things go wrong and to lend you a shoulder to cry on when you need it the most. Expats will also help you celebrate in style, sharing their culture along with yours and that of the host country, packing the calendar with fun and festivities.

The bonds of friendship in these relationships become firm fast, with expat friends becoming like family, making goodbyes all the more difficult.

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Sooner or later during your time overseas one of your closest confidants will leap on a plane and leave you behind. When this happens, the pain of separation takes many expats by surprise, leaving them feeling abandoned and alone. The sudden loss of a close friend can leave expats feeling unable to cope with their life overseas and eager to come home.

To help you deal with the upset and isolation that can strike when a close expat friend heads off home, leaving you on your own, we’ve looked at ways to cope.

Talk about them leaving

Your friend is leaving. This is a fact and it will not change.

Don’t pretend that everything will carry on as normal after they’ve gone or that it won’t hurt. Both you and your friend are probably dreading the moment of goodbye, even more so if your family and theirs are close.

Make sure you acknowledge how close you’ve become and how much you will miss them. But also make sure they know they have your support in moving on to their next big adventure. It’s rare, but expat friendships sometimes turn sour in the final days if neither party can reconcile their emotions about the pending move.

Continue to be a loyal friend right up to the end, let them tell you their hopes and fears about the return home and help them with the practicalities.

Expat friendships are transient; as soon as you start getting close to someone, you acknowledge that you will have to say goodbye all too soon. Jerry Jones, an American who lives in China, recommends talking as much as possible. “Expats get to know people all over the world,” he writes at thecultureblend.com. “Leaving broken bits of relationship unattended to weakens that network. Communicating — very specifically — how much you appreciate people makes it crazy strong.”

Those expats who don’t discuss their friendships are likely to feel abandoned and thus spoil a good thing forever, as Australian expat Liana Liston told the Telegraph. “When I know someone’s going to leave, I start picking fights with them and am generally a bit mean,” she says. “I’ll get really offended at something they’ve done to react, and then convince myself that I’m not sad that they’re going.”

Make the most of the time you have left

You’ve enjoyed a close friendship up to this point, so why change it now?

As their departure date looms, make the most of the time you have left, do the things you’ve thus far put off. Go on that day trip, cook that meal together and build as many memories as you can.

Try to leave as little unfinished business as possible. Someone’s departure can be all the more traumatic if there is unfinished business or regrets.

Dhyan Summers quickly made friends when she arrived in Delhi, although it was destined to be a short lived. “One friend in particular had become a kind of soul sister to me very quickly,” Summers told ExpatFocus.com “I knew she was leaving shortly when we first became friends, but decided to allow our friendship to deepen because it was giving me so much, and to break off our friendship made no sense.”

Although the initial separation will still be painful, you won’t also be juggling the guilt or regret that goes with unfulfilled promises.

Throw them a going away party

It can be difficult to put into words just how much someone means to you, but there are other ways to say this. A surprise party with friends, cake and a good vibe can be the perfect way for everyone to share the love.

Get a crowd together and turn sad farewells into a celebration of your friend and a happy send off for them. It’s a great opportunity to give them trinkets and mementos as well filling an album with photos of happy smiling faces. Spend an evening creating as many happy memories as possible for your friend.

Go away yourself

When your friend leaves town, take a break yourself. Leave town for a day or two and come back to a fresh start. You’ll still miss your friend but a few days away means you can come back with a clear head and concentrate on making new memories.

Jerry Jones finds the first few days of separation to be the hardest. “Personally it was always gut-wrenching for me to walk around my apartment complex and be painfully aware of who was NOT there and who was never coming back.”

Don’t let yourself wallow in the pain of separation. Get out and have some fun to remind yourself that life goes on, even without your friend within arm’s reach.

Acknowledge the grief

There’s part of all of us that wants to keep calm and carry on, refusing to acknowledge the pain we are in, hoping that might make it go away.

This only makes things worse and prevents us from moving on. A friend leaving can very much feel like losing them, generating the same emotions as grief.

Hopefully your buddy is safe and well, but without them there it can feel as if they are gone for good. This can kick in a grief reaction that can be broken down into seven distinct stages. Understanding these stages can make it easier to steer your way through them.

Dhyan Summers is also a psychotherapist, helping expats cope with life overseas. She explained on expatcounselingandcoaching.com that these stages can happen all at once or spread out over time, making for a confusing emotional rollercoaster. “It’s important to allow yourself to experience the bittersweet subtlety of feelings before your friend leaves,” she writes. “You may notice you have many feelings; warmth, tenderness, closeness, sadness and even anger. Surprisingly, these feelings can all exist side by side.”

The first stage is denial, which may kick in before your friend actually leaves. You know they are going but you refuse to acknowledge it, perhaps even after they’re gone you’ll keep telling yourself they are about to come back. The sooner you accept the state of affairs the sooner you can move on.

This is followed by anger; it may feel as though you have been abandoned by someone you trusted. Next comes bargaining, when you find ways to make the situation fit the reality you wish you had. You may find yourself grumbling, ‘they are gone for now, but they’ll come back’, even if you know this is unlikely.

Bargaining is often followed by a phase of depression, when you realise you can’t get what you want. This phase can be the most nefarious, undermining your self confidence and robbing your lust for life. Battle on through though and you’ll reach the last stage, acceptance.

This final stage is you recognising the new reality in which you live. You friend can still be reached by email and video messaging, but you can’t give them a hug or sit with them for a coffee.

Stay in touch

Agree before they go that you’ll keep in touch by a particular method. Whether it is a regular Skype date, letters or text messages, make a commitment to keep talking.

They are adjusting to their new lives at home, or as an expat elsewhere. You can counsel each other through the process of change from afar.

Just because you are no longer in the same country, doesn’t mean you can’t still be friends, you just need to make an extra effort to define your new friendship.

Don’t get too sentimental

This isn’t to say that you need to have a bonfire of all the mementos that remind you of your friend – this isn’t a bad break up from an unfaithful partner.

Nor do you need to build a shrine to them and celebrate the memory of days gone by, however. You and your friend are both moving on in the world, going on to do new and exciting things.

Don’t let yourself constantly recap the past, telling yourself that things are never going to be that good again. Things will get better and you will meet new people and have just as much fun again.

Visit them

Arrange a visit to see your friend in their new life, wherever they are. A flying visit may give the context you need to understand what has happened to your friendship.

They have jumped on a plane and vanished from your little world. Even if they contact you with updates and stories, you may not be able to reconcile these with the reality of their absence.

Not only will a reunion strengthen your bonds, it will help you get to grips with their new place in the world.

Stay positive

It’s a confusing time, with plenty of conflicting emotions at play. It’s easy to become bitter, depressed, anxious and angry, especially when thinking about the future.

Try to stay positive, celebrating your friend’s departure as an exciting step for them and a chance for you to make new friends and go on new adventures.

Make new friends

You may have lost your closest confidant and now feel very alone in a foreign country. But it doesn’t need to stay that way.

The sooner you get out there and start making new friends, the better you will feel. And it’s not as though you are dishonouring your absent friend by meeting new people.

It may be the case that the pain of losing one friend was so great that you want to avoid making another in case they too have to move on. Don’t be tempted to become a hermit, shunning human contact; this is far from healthy.

If it hurts when someone leaves, you know the relationship is strong and that it’s worth investing effort in keeping it going from afar. If you decide to avoid making new friends, you are committing yourself to avoiding one of the best features of expat life and setting yourself up for a miserable time overseas.

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer


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